Melbourne bookshops like Readings and Paperback Bookshop are part of the city’s cultureMarch 18, 2023
I am of a generation who can remember some of Melbourne’s lost bookshops: Halls, The Bookshop of Margareta Webber, H.A. Evans and Son, McGill’s and more recently – Alice’s Bookshop, Book Affair and Academic and General, among others.
With the closing of a bookshop there is a fraying of the threads of Melbourne culture. Melbourne was once a city where bookshops were common. It is a city now reduced to a handful. This matters.
Anna MacDonald, owner of Paperback Bookshop in Bourke Street.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
The demise of a bookshop is the loss of a cultural institution. Margins are tight and the pandemic was, for some, the last hurrah. Online is the scourge of bookshops. It is cheap and convenient, but a reader loses out on so much of what a bookshop offers.
Bruce Evans of H.A. Evans and Son, who closed his Swanston Street shop in 1980, noted one of the key reasons it has become a precarious trade.
“The new book trade generally has deteriorated and I think publishers are largely to blame,” he said. “In any shop now you will find stacks of books left by publishers on sale or return. We spend half our time clearing up publishers’ mistakes.”
The literary culture of Melbourne can only survive if bookshops do.
This makes sense. Independent booksellers survive because of customer loyalty, yes – but they know their customer base and order strategically.
When Borders tried to colonise the book trade in Melbourne they could not crack the market. It was a disingenuous and ruinously flawed business model to put a Borders store in direct competition with Carlton’s beloved Readings.
What Readings typifies is the added value a customer gets in a bookshop: knowledgeable staff, book-based conversation and sincere recommendations. Readings staff hand sell – making recommendations based on what a reader is looking for. It’s a two-way relationship; customers recommend books as well.
The same can be said for The Paperback Bookshop in Bourke Street. This little gem is crammed with extraordinary books. The staff know their stock, can suggest titles and hand sell.
There is something else bookshops do that is not possible online. This is the commitment they show to the furtherance of literary culture, via in-shop author events or the support given to books that many retail chain bookstores would not find space – for example poets on small presses.
Online book sales are cheap and convenient, but a reader loses out on so much of what a bookshop offers.Credit:Cole Wilson
For a bookshop to survive for an entire century, as Bourke Street’s Hill Of Content has done, is a singularly significant achievement. While it is part of Collins Booksellers, this is not a detraction.
The long-serving staff are booksellers of the old school where customer service and understated expertise are evident. And Mary Martin books, a pale shadow of its former buzzing shop in Swanston Street, still chugs on at Southbank.
What needs to be understood is that every time a customer purchases a book in a bookshop they are contributing to the survival of a shop, the availability of skilled staff and the ability to talk about books and share impressions, enriching the booksellers and customer.
By buying online, especially through monolithic book clearing houses, there is no investment in the local literary culture. It is simply about moving stock. Then there is the matter of bookshops promoting literacy.
Readings managing director Mark Rubbo.Credit:Louise Trerise/AFR
Bookshops help to create and keep readers. Buying online does not do this. Appealing and welcoming places for children offer a comfortable environment where books mean pleasure and entertainment (Dymocks Melbourne does this well as does Readings at Emporium).
Bookshops can and do invest in future readers by supporting literacy and specifically Indigenous literacy programs.
The comments of Bruce Evans still resonate today. Publishers have not only a commercial responsibility to bookshops but perhaps an ethical and moral one as well.
The literary culture of Melbourne, indeed recognised and an international city of literature no less, can only survive if bookshops do. It is up to us to see that their doors remain open.
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer.
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